Texas Senate votes to make illegal voting a felony

Legislation to restore the offense of illegal voting to a felony has cleared the Texas Senate on the first of two votes needed to send the bill to the House of Representatives.

Sen. Bryan Hughes’ (R-Mineola) Senate Bill (SB) 2, designated as priority legislation by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, returns the criminal penalty for illegally voting to a second degree felony as it was prior to 2021.

It was during the passage of major election reform legislation in the 87th Legislative Session that an amendment by Steve Allison (R-San Antonio) reduced the offense from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor.

According to legislative analysis on Hughes’ bill, SB 2 not only restores the felony offense, but also clarifies the mens rea standard for violating the law. It reads, “For almost all crimes, ignorance of the law is not a defense. Requiring that the prosecution prove a defendant’s personal knowledge of a specific law makes a crime almost impossible to prosecute.”

SB 2 changes this standard, requiring someone only be aware of a personal circumstance that disqualifies them from voting, such as being a convicted felon or non-citizen, to meet the threshold for prosecution, as opposed to knowing about the details of that law.

While SB 2 shows identical legislation to it has been filed by Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) in the House of Representatives, five House members have filed similar bills seeking to increase the penalty for illegal voting.

Hughes took a battery of questions from Senate Democrats on Monday as he laid SB 2 before the upper chamber.

Democrats uniformly expressed concern for “unintended consequences” the bill could have, asking Hughes whether his bill contemplated numerous scenarios, such as whether a convicted felon casting a provisional ballot due to their uncertainty regarding their qualification would be subject to prosecution under SB 2.

Hughes offered an amendment that would give extra notice to felons at polling locations in response to these concerns, but after Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) said the amendment didn’t satisfy their concerns, Hughes pulled the amendment down.

After an amendment offered by the Democrats was rejected, the bill passed on the second reading with 19 Republicans voting aye and 12 Democrats voting against.

The bill will undergo one more vote in the Senate before heading to the House for consideration.

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